One of our church members recently asked what the characteristics were of modern-day Pharisees. Since I fervently believe that we all have a sinful predisposition to take the radical Good News that Jesus preached and demonstrated and turn it into something dead and deadly, I jumped at the chance to share my thoughts. Thoughts that have been churning in my brain for years, producing not only these insights but years of trying to pastor a sampling of God’s people so that we would admit having this huge blind-spot AND take concrete steps to reject it.
How I believe that we are most like the Pharisees in the NT:
1) We mistake the Bible for the Word (Logos) of God, which John clearly identified as Jesus (John 1:1).
2) So when Jesus actually showed up, they didn’t recognize the Son of God at all, instead attacking him and the works of his kingdom with Bible verses. As the late Prof. Ray Anderson (Fuller Seminary) was fond of saying “Sometimes, not always, the WORK of God should make us reinterpret the WORD of God.” I know, we’re not Jesus, but I believe the principle is sound. If we clearly see, say, captives being set free, but it doesn’t line up with how we’re reading the Bible, then we should at least pause to wonder if our interpretation in this case is flawed. Doesn’t mean that it is, but we should be humble enough to acknowledge that it might be.
3) As in the case of the Good Samaritan, Pharisees often choose not to love unexpectedly and unconditionally because it might make them “unclean,” ie., give others the impression that they are condoning something sinful. Failing to love our neighbors in unexpected, unconditional, and uncomfortable ways is failing to love God with all our being (Matt 22:34-40; 1John 47-21).
4) Pharisees live as if the world is neatly black and white and they see themselves as clearly living in the black while most others lived entirely in the black. (They naturally feel qualified to pass judgment on others, even though God prohibits us from doing so.) Jesus destroyed that distinction and created a new Temple in himself, one that reconciled all sinners to each other. Jesus made it a level-playing field; Pharisees prefer to see a hierarchy that promotes their greater righteousness.
5) Pharisees spend gobs of time in Temple-centered activities and pride themselves that they aren’t like the less devout and observant. But Jesus called them white-washed tombs and broods of vipers. I no doubt that Jesus would label modern-day Pharisees as poisonous snakes, too.
6) Pharisees’ obsessive focus on obeying God’s laws led them to rely on their own efforts (and resulted in deadly hubris) and not throw themselves on the mercies of God in Christ. Like them, we naturally gravitate towards believing and behaving as if we are able to boost our worth to God thru good, moral behavior (older brother of the Prodigal). But in doing so, we diminish our desperate need for Christ and his cross. And when we erroneously believe that we haven’t been forgiven very much (sin-debt), Jesus says the consequence is that we love very little (Luke 7:36-50). As John put it, “we love because He first loved us.” (1John 4:19)
I was raised to be a neo-Pharisee and I’ve always been part of some kind of Pharisee Factory. I am addicted to hypocrisy, hubris, and spiritual conceit. But because Jesus is full of grace and truth, I have hope to overcome these habitual horrible habits. Like an addict who has come to grips with his addictions, I now carry the identity of a Recovering Pharisee. As such, I should be acutely aware of my Pharisaic proclivities, of my instinctive desire to think that I can add to my worth to Christ by being more moral than most. I need to wake up each morning feeling humbled and grateful, not boastful and judgmental. I need to avoid hanging out with Pharisees who are still deep in their addictions and in denial, because they can easily bring me back to being too full of myself and less full of the Holy Spirit. And even if I’m ‘clean and sober’ for a long time, I should not be surprised when I relapse, because–guided by the love of Jesus–relapse is part of my recovery. For relapse humbles me further, making me more teachable. And hopefully, a little bit more like Jesus and less like a venomous snake.